Lessons from Rhonda

I remember being five years old, living in sunny Phoenix, Arizona sitting in Ms. Piano’s kindergarten class when I first heard one of life’s quintessential questions, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Fast forward nearly two decades and the question I faced, as a little boy, is the same one that echoes in my mind today, this time as a bearded man.

Trading the hot and arid southwest for the just as hot but significantly more humid southeast, I moved to an affluent suburb of Atlanta for the remainder of my years at home. The majority of my peers aspired to attend the ivory towers of academia, striving to become lawyers, doctors and executives. And I was one of them, in fact, I came to believe everyone’s list of life goals involved becoming a partner at a law firm, operating a medical practice or having a corner office somewhere above Wall Street. People took blue-collar jobs out of necessity- not inclination.

This summer has radically changed that perspective. I have an internship with one of the most recognizable beverage brands on the planet; it’s my first “real look” at the inner workings of a colossal corporation. Specializing in supply chain management and operations, this seasonal position exposes me to the many logistical facets of a multi-billion dollar organization. One of my first days on the job, I walked out on the factory floor and met an older woman named Rhonda*. Rhonda has been working the same machine in manufacturing for twenty-eight years. An expert operator, she had been around long enough to know every aspect of the beverage business. Yet, Rhonda didn’t match my idea of what a protalitarian worker would be- college-educated, smart and articulate, it didn’t add up that a woman like that would still clock-in and-out after nearly thirty years on the job. More fit for management than manual labor in my mind, I inquired if she had ever looked into “climbing the ladder.” To my surprise, she had in fact been asked several times to move up- to trade in her smock and leather shoes for a blouse and heels- to give up labeling bottles to start signing paychecks, but she turned it down… every time. In beautiful simplicity she stated, “This is what I’m called to, I love the job I have, why would I want to change?”

I haven’t been able to shake Rhonda from my mind. In my arrogance I had, in a way, “felt bad” for the working class. I couldn’t imagine someone could actually be “called” to hourly labor. I think we as millennials and Christian millennials in particular- have lost sight of what it truly means to be successful, the true definition of what ‘work’ is. We’ve begun to believe if we’re not working at a trendy non-profit by the time we’re twenty-five we’ve somehow failed; if we’re not involved in changing the landscape of leadership, culture and the arts, we’re somehow “less than” everyone else. We so easily place things in the the boxes of “sacred” or “secular”, giving more value to one or the other based upon the environment in which we were raised.

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, challenges these ideas by defining work as anything that “brings order out of chaos […] and rearranges the raw material of God’s creation for the purpose of human flourishing.” Work isn’t about whether you write legal briefs in an office or preach sermons in a pulpit beneath a steeple, it has nothing to do with being a blue-collar foreman or a white collar executive- all honest work has inherent dignity and worth because, “it’s something that God does and because we do it in God’s place, as his representatives.”

So, as I continue on my quest to answer one of humanity’s fundamental questions- it’s beginning to sink in, as an agent of the Almighty, I have direct access to the unwarranted gift of value and honor in my work. So does Rhonda. And so do you. Culture will tell you to trade in your smock and your shoes, but if you’re where you’re supposed to be, there is so much more joy in being marked by God than being marketed by man.

*name has been changed